Litter in our waterways

What is litter?

Litter in our waterways is a serious pollution problem that affects our wildlife, aquatic habitats, water quality and the recreational use of waterways.

Litter is almost any material that is disposed of incorrectly. Litter includes fast food wrappers and drink bottles dropped on the ground, cigarette

butts thrown out of the car window, discarded chewing gum, or paint tipped down the drain.

When litter is dropped on land, the wind and rain carry it to stormwater drains which empty into creeks and rivers which then carry it to the ocean. Once litter reaches our waterways, it is very difficult to remove.

Litter in our oceans is called ‘marine debris’. Ocean currents can carry marine debris thousands of kilometres around the world. Every year over 7 million tonnes of litter ends up in the world’s oceans. That is approximately 1.3 million rubbish trucks of litter.

Litter in South East Queensland’s waterways

Litter in our waterways is a result of human behaviour. South East Queensland (SEQ) has the fastest growing population in Australia. Population growth is one of the main factors contributing to the increasing amount of litter in our waterways.

Waterway litter has become a key issue for the residents of SEQ. In a 2010 Healthy Waterways’ community survey, residents highlighted rubbish

and litter as the most crucial factor damaging our waterways.

There are many alarming facts about waterway litter in SEQ including:

  • Studies have found that 30-40% of sea turtles found dead in Moreton Bay have considerable plastic litter in their stomach.
  • The Healthy Waterways Clean Up Program has recorded a 50% increase in the number of plastic water bottles collected from local waterways.
  • Brisbane City Council has identified that cigarette butts make up more than 50% of all littered items but discarded chewing gum is emerging as a major issue.

Impacts and types of litter

Waterway litter harms and kills marine wildlife, causing the death of at least 100,000 marine mammals including turtles, dugongs and whales, and nearly one million seabirds worldwide, per year. Wildlife can become entangled in litter or mistake it for food and eat it, resulting in injury or death. In addition, aquatic habitats such as coral and seagrass beds are also damaged by litter. Not only is litter dangerous for wildlife and aquatic habitats, but it makes our waterways look dirty and unattractive. This reduces the recreational use of waterways and impacts the income received from activities such as tourism.


80% of litter in our waterways is made of plastic such as plastic bags, plastic bottles and food wrappers. Most plastic objects never biodegrade, they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastic generally floats so it can be carried long distances in oceans and deposited on beaches all around the world. Large circular ocean currents concentrate floating litter into one place and cause problems such as ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.

Cigarette butts

An estimated that several trillion cigarette butts (worldwide) are littered every year. Cigarette butts contain toxic chemicals which will start to leach out within an hour of contact with water. Birds and aquatic animals can mistake cigarette butts as food and swallow them, resulting in serious digestive problems that may lead to death.

Paint and chemicals

Liquid litter such as paint and household chemicals contain toxins and chemicals that are hazardous to people and wildlife, and degrade water quality. Even when these products are diluted they should never be tipped down stormwater drains or dumped near waterways.

Healthy Waterways

Healthy Waterways is a not-for-profit, non-government organisation working to protect and improve waterway health in SEQ. We facilitate careful planning and coordinated efforts among a network of member organisations from government, industry, research and the community.

The Healthy Waterways Clean Up Program has been running for 10 years and collects over 240,000 items of floating litter from SEQ’s waterways each year. While the Clean Up Program has been effective in clearing waterway litter, we recognise that prevention is better than a cure. In order to address the issue of waterway litter, we have developed a campaign called ‘Keep it Clean’ to educate and engage the community.

How you can help – The Five R’s


  • Reduce the packaging in your lunch box.
  • Buy things in bulk to reduce the wrapping and packaging.
  • Put a ‘No Junk Mail’ sticker on your letterbox to reduce the paper waste.


  • Use a refillable water bottle.
  • Reuse items that you may otherwise throw away.


  • Recycle as much as possible.
  • Recycle empty printer cartridges, mobile


  • Choose goods made from renewable resources rather than plastic.


  • Respect the environment and dispose of litter correctly.
  • Pick up any litter you see.


Get in touch

Healthy Land and Water is dedicated to the care of our unique and beautiful land, waterways and biodiversity.

  • Address: Level 19, 160 Ann Street Brisbane QLD 4000
  • PO Box: 13204, George Street Brisbane QLD 4003
  • Phone: (07) 3177 9100
  • Fax: (07) 3177 9190
  • Email:

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